Since its Johannesburg premiere, I have been unsettled by Oliver Hermanus‘s latest film, Moffie, loosely based on the titular autobiographical novel by Andre-Carl van der Merwe. The film, follows a teen conscript’s journey through the army into the brutal “Border War” in northern Namibia and southern Angola, and then back into apartheid society again as a man.
As he moves from his send-off party at home, to his training camp and then to the front, we see our protagonist, Nicholas van der Swart (played by Kai Luke Brummer), trying to make sense of his desire for men inside the cauldron of apartheid’s violent masculinity.
Roughly 600 000 youths were processed through the apartheid army, many of whom would have to return for short-term training camps to keep them fit for war. Through Nicholas’s eyes, Hermanus gives us an unfiltered view of what life in the army must have been like for this generation of men, and the culture that groomed them for it.
The film has been received with critical acclaim at home and abroad, with every review bringing into focus Hermanus’s remarkable vision in producing a rich and sensory experience of the entanglement of risk, violence and desire at a particular time and place in South Africa’s history.
The acclaim is deserved, in many ways. The themes Hermanus explores are universal… but here’s the crux. His characters are not. They are all white. Apartheid’s army was white. By itself, this shouldn’t be a problem. The film is set in a particular moment in South Africa’s recent history, where these white characters in a white army have a distinctly white experience under a white supremacist social order. But its decided refusal to examine the cost of their context and choices to their and our collective humanity only edifies the tired trope of South Africa’s whites as apartheid’s facile victims rather than its passive collaborators.
For queer men in South Africa, the word moffie, which carries the equivalence of stabane or faggot, is layered with experiences of shame, exclusion and violence. The slur functions as both a boundary defining the limits of masculinity, as well as a consequence for its transgression.
At home, on the playground and in society, we knew that to be called a moffie was to have failed at performing received scripts of masculinity in some way, and that to be identified as one was to not only lose the esteem of your community but to be deservedly punished by it.
Moffie is not a safe territory to inhabit, as those of us who grew up under apartheid’s shadow well-know. Conforming to the script of heterosexual masculinity was necessary for our survival, and the consequence of being a moffie was often calamitous, and sometimes even deadly.
Queer men were faced with impossible choices when it came to exploring their desire for one another – to deny themselves and be rewarded for keeping to the script, or to live as themselves and brace themselves for the punishment of certain social death.
This intimate knowledge of living at risk from society is a shared territory for gay men in South Africa, and it is this territory that Hermanus enlists us to explore through Nicholas and his platoon’s coming of age. Moffie is not a political film, it’s a film about gay shame.
The first time we hear moffie in the film, the slur is relentlessly barked at the fresh conscripts as they are being processed into the army. And every time we hear it, thereafter, it lands with a very credible threat of violence, or its very brutal enactment.
Each time the word is uttered, it is clarified for us that to be a moffie is shameful and something to be despised. Every time it lands, the shame clings to the body and gets under the skin, and we understand that moffies are enemies of society like the very “kaffirs and communists” that these boys were being trained to kill at the border.
The tension between these impossible choices and their implications for their survival are really what hold this film together, and their everyday-ness is presented with dramatic effect through Nicholas’s eyes.
Very early in the film he has to choose whether to participate in the obscene racist assault of a Black man at a train station he passes through on his way to train for a racist war. He then has to choose whether to participate in the violent male bonding rituals that go on in the barracks or face the shame of being identified among the moffies of his platoon. At the height of the film, he has to choose whether to give in to himself and his desire, and risk the cruel and degrading medical abuse that awaited moffies in the infamous Ward 22.
Hermanus’s handling of these choices really brings to bear how coercive the apartheid system was on its youth. It’s difficult to come out of Moffie without a sense of how damaging it was to the humanity of even its foot soldiers. In a cultural moment that has neither the space nor the patience for discussing white victimhood, Hermanus really challenges us to, at least, consider the humanity of these guys, and understand them within the rigidly defined limits of their context.
And this is really where the film becomes tricky to watch from a Black position. Perhaps because of the source material, or the proficiency with which Hermanus realises white apartheid logics on-screen, Moffie also reads in ways which are uncomfortably ambivalent about the culpability of its characters in apartheid’s war.
We learn a great deal about their brainwashing, their intimate desires and the depths of their languishing, but we don’t learn very much about how they reckoned with their entanglement in apartheid ideology as its pawns and agents. By contrast, the only Black people we glimpse, on each end of the film, are seen through white eyes. They have no names nor interior landscapes. They function only as objects of white violence, elaborating things we already know about the character of the white people this film is about.
To suspend our disbelief and fully participate in the magic Hermanus creates on the screen, we have to accept that these conscripted youths did what they had to survive apartheid or they did not. We are called to accommodate rather than confront their culpability in apartheid if the universality of the themes Hermanus invites us to explore is to succeed.
This appeal to the universality of internalised homophobia in the experience of queer men, wherever they come from, are the key features by which some will want to locate Moffie in the queer archive. And maybe this is possible for the white Afrikaner and European markets in which Hermanus’s films perform so well. But here, at home, Hermanus’s failure – even refusal – to examine his characters’ complicity in apartheid’s war make this difficult – perhaps even impossible.
Rather than queer, Moffie offers only conservative frameworks to understand these boys by and, by implication, the gay men who fought in apartheid’s war. It disconnects their internal conflict with gay shame under apartheid from its inherent entanglement with the white supremacist project apartheid was.
Black queer people who watch this film are, in effect, asked to build bridges of empathy and understanding without even the slightest examination of how, for white gay men, surviving apartheid’s war depended on them playing their part in the ruthless destruction of Black and queer, and Black-and-queer lives.
In a social landscape where queer experience is still divided along racial lines, this seems like a bridge too far when the work of reckoning with the baggage of apartheid is still overwhelmingly carried by us. They are able to relive the erotic horror of apartheid through cinema, and we continue to live with its horrifying consequence at home.
Moffie is a gripping and deeply affecting film. It opens a window to the unspoken pain and consequence of apartheid on the sexuality and identity of a generation of queer men. But, for all its accomplishments, its success lies in a cinematic experience for which Black people are probably not the target market.
Sekoetlane Phamodi is a media development specialist currently based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He writes about media, culture and society.